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I left my really cool life for an even better one

October 12, 2013 | Specialist James Cook

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm not your typical U.S. Army recruit. Although, I would hope that recruits come from all walks of life, I have a creeping suspicion that I'm a one-of-a-kind case, which should make for an interesting experience in Basic Combat Training (BCT).

Needless to say, I'm enlisted and oath'd and in the delayed entry period — which I think breaks down, at least for me, into two phases. Rumspringa and Work Out Until You're Ready To Work Out For 10 Weeks.

Right now I'm in my proverbial Rumspringa, which is a fancy word for when Amish teenagers and young adults are entitled to leave their parents' home for a short period of time and do whatever they want. Granted, I'm not running around like other Amish young people on Rumspringa, doing crystal meth and getting an STD in Brooklyn. I'm just trying to enjoy my last few days of indulgence before the work begins.

OK, I'm not even Amish — I'm the furthest thing. In fact, I'm lost without my iPhone, laptop and various other time-wasting devices. That should also make for an interesting experience at BCT. And the extent of my indulgence is basically oversleeping my alarm clock — sweet mother of God, I woke up at 12:30 p.m. today and was almost late for work and didn't care — and eating fried everything and pasta and pizza and candy and anything else I really have no interest in eating again unless I'm offered a last-meal on death row or get a terminal illness.

That's not important. I joined the Army for a number of reasons, many of them personal. It certainly wasn't an easy decision.

But it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be, either.

I can’t quite remember how these guys recruited me — I think it was winter 2007 and I was sitting alone in a community college eating those terrible over-processed chicken nuggets that are nothing more than a fried shell surrounding a white sponge. And like a sponge, I was sitting alone, people-watching, writing, and passing time before my advanced music theory class. A tall recruiter with short black hair and a peaceful smile sat down next to me and asked if I had ever considered a career in the U.S. Army.

Just give them a short, quick “no” because they’ll own you, and if they draft you we’re moving to Canada. Grandmom has family in Canada. Remember our fun trip Niagara Falls? Canada isn’t so bad. You won’t get drafted. Just don’t join the Army. I think that was essentially the advice I got — being the first-born child — from my post-Vietnam era parents. I’m sure if I had said “yes” to that recruiter, their reaction wouldn’t have been as receptive as it was the third time around.

They called me a few days later and I told them I’d give them a call back when I had an answer.

I wasn’t just blowing smoke, either. I did, in fact, stand by my word and give the recruiting office a call back.

Seven years later.

Cut to somewhere in 2012. I’m no longer a pathetic community college student. I have a better taste in food — though I still kind of do like crappy chicken nuggets, which would be awesome if they serve them at BCT — and I’m a little more independent of mom and dad. I was 25 years old, had a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, and already had been working professionally in the news industry for three years. I had just finished up a two-year stint as a newspaper reporter and photographer, having the time of my life in the best, most educational job ever. I had been promoted to Web Editor of our regional publication, covering the lower half of New Jersey. It was a good job with leadership roles; pay wasn’t awful, and I didn’t have any outstanding student loan debt. And then I got an email about public relations jobs (which are closely related to my field of work) in the Army — specifically the Public Affairs MOS.

So, as I said I would, I called them back. They didn’t remember me. It wasn’t even the same recruiters from seven years prior. But I called them back and we discussed the job opportunities and the benefits and set up an appointment and I cancelled the appointment and chickened out and then the real dilemma began.

The opportunity was on the table for the taking. Yes, I’ll do fine on the ASVAB and qualify for the MOS. I wasn’t worried about that. I remember the moment I hung up the phone when I told the SGT recruiter that I wasn’t interested, taking a sigh and saying “OK good. I’m not joining the Army.”

Then the regret set in. Normally, recruiters will call you back — or so I’ve heard — and try to twist your arm, but my recruiters were good. They let it go. For a few months the regret set in.

I told myself: I’m 25-years-old. The clock is ticking. If I don’t join the military and serve my country now, then I never will. And then it will be too late. And then the regret I’m holding in now — which is eating away at me — will be with me my entire life. Every day I’ll look at my life and recall how I never took the opportunity to join the military and serve my country. I’ll be too old. I’ll never get that chance back. I’ve only got one life to live. Get on that damn phone and call that recruiter back before it kills you. Because, no matter how many times I say “I IMMEDIATELY REGRET THIS DECISION!” at basic training in Fort Jackson, S.C., the regret will only be momentary — unlike the lifetime of guilt from knowing I could have joined the Army and didn't.  Suddenly, the question of “what if I do join the Army,” became a lot easier to swallow than “what if I don’t.”

I told myself: You’re single, Jim. You’re in your 20s. You live with your parents. Take some initiative with your life. Yeah, you have a great job. Yeah, you have a fun life. Yeah, you have a full portfolio of news writing, two state-level journalism awards, two plays produced and published in book-form, a photography and filmography portfolio, the list goes on, etc. But there’s something missing.

Early in 2013, I called the recruiter and told him I was interested in setting up an appointment. We did. I met with him. We discussed the Public Affairs MOS — that it would build my portfolio for a career in journalism. Problem is, I already have a good portfolio and already had plenty of success with a career in journalism. Getting out of the Army and entering a dying industry wrought with uncertainty was not something I was looking for.

Then, he mentioned military intelligence. Foreign languages.

Now, we’re talking. Scored relatively well on the ASVAB. Scored high on the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB), and made a choice to completely change my life, leave journalism, and become a Cryptologic Linguist for the U.S. Army.

So. That escalated quickly.

My entire family was supportive. The majority of my friends were supportive. When I told my co-workers and managers about the career move, they were shocked, but congratulatory and happy for me. I’m now in my last week of a career that I began in 2008 as a college junior.

I’ll miss it. I’ll miss my family. I’ll miss my friends. My cat, oh I’ll miss “Kitteh” terribly.

And I finish my proverbial Rumspringa on Monday to begin my physical training pre-boot camp. On Wednesday, I meet with the recruiter again — a former drill sergeant, himself — to plan the physical training and start training at a local park nearby the recruiting office.

Since I don’t have a newspaper to write for anymore, I’ll be writing about it here. I hope what I did inspires someone else to not be afraid of completely changing their life.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


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  • Tim Zoyac
    10/14/2013 9:19 PM
    Jim Cook Jr. you are someone that I have always looked up to! I am so proud of you! Be safe bud!
    • James Cook
      10/14/2013 10:55 PM
      Thanks, Timmy! Reppin' the "immy" clan. Love you, buddy.

  • Danielle lewison
    10/14/2013 10:32 PM
    That is awesome. Be safe out here and thanks for your time serving us .
    • James Cook
      10/14/2013 10:54 PM
      Thanks for reading, Danielle. I'll promise I'll stay safe. Thanks again!

  • Frank Supinski
    10/15/2013 6:44 PM
    Good luck and train hard, that way Ft Jackson will be a walk in the park.
    • James Cook
      10/15/2013 7:18 PM
      Thanks, Frank! Just started working out yesterday and killed the push-ups and sit-ups. Tonight, I got the one-mile run down to 8 minutes and 29 seconds. SUCCESS! Hooah, my friend, and thanks for reading.
  • Danny Aupperle
    10/15/2013 7:30 PM
    You're awesome, Jim. Best of luck with everything and to reiterate what everyone else has already said a million times - stay safe! But most of all, enjoy the journey.
    • James Cook
      10/16/2013 1:18 AM
      Thanks, Danny!! :)
  • Michael
    10/15/2013 7:39 PM
    Congratulations - I wish more youth shared your view on service. A quick question through, why not commission and attend OCS after BCT?
    • James Cook
      10/16/2013 1:19 AM
      Michael - Thanks! And good question. This has come up a few times, and it's a long answer. I think it'll serve as a good blog post. The short answer is, I probably will do OCS in the future.
  • James Bowman
    10/15/2013 7:52 PM
    Good luck James, I hope the Army is everything you wish it to be and more.
    • James Cook
      10/16/2013 1:20 AM
      Thanks, James!
  • Ryan S.
    10/15/2013 11:24 PM
    Well done. Keep a positive attitude and stay motivated.
    • James Cook
      10/16/2013 1:20 AM
      Thanks, Ryan S!
  • Rick Ubq.
    10/20/2013 10:35 PM
    Hey James! Your story is awesome and surprisingly you will meet a lot of individuals like yourself when you get to DLI. I say surprising because there are many intelligent young Americans who took the same initiative as yourself...and you will be surprised by the sheer talent you will find when you get to DLI. I being one of them. I have a similar story and even had the same MOS as you are going to have. Shoot me an email and I will give you a nice heads up about what you are about to get yourself into:
  • Johanna Riggins
    10/27/2013 6:24 PM
    I just found this post and wanted to say I enjoyed reading about your decision making process. I read this, as well as your other posts, to my husband and he enjoyed it as well. You are an awesome guy and the rest of us Woodstown folk are super proud of what you are doing for our country! We can't wait to read more about this journey in your life.
  • Dusan
    12/5/2013 4:48 PM
    James, you will most probably come to study foreign languages here, at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, CA. We look forward to having such a determined and hard working student! You can learn more about this demanding school on this website:
    • James Cook
      2/21/2014 3:47 PM
      Dusan - I just graduated Basic Training yesterday and I'm flying to DLI in Monterey tonight. I'm tremendously thrilled! Thanks for the comment!
  • rachael tolliver
    12/6/2013 9:00 AM
    James--just found your post. I went through something similar-but my job and degree wasn't journalism....I was recruited for intel but held out for public affairs. As an older soldier...:o) As a PA spec., we interview a lot of people, tell a lot of stories and go a lot of places. So believe me when I say that you will enjoy the time you will spend at the DLI--great area. And the job you will have will put you in places you never thought you would see. And yes, you will add to your portfolio because if you are any kind of photog---you won't go anywhere without your camera! Quite frankly, you are mixing two skill sets that will serve you very well---now and after the Army. Hope to hear more from you. I don't tune in to ASSblogs---but I am marking yours to see what pictures you post, and what adventures your life presents. GOOD LUCK!
  • Karen Martinez
    1/25/2014 2:03 PM
    Hey James, your story inspired me! I really wanna join the Army, I'm only 16 now, and my parents don't agree with what I wanna do.! I'm pretty sure that I won't have their support if I join the military, my friends say that I'm crazy, that is gonna be really hard to me, and that I won't make it.! I'm a little bit girly and I'm not really athletic, but I now I can do it.! Do u think that I should join the military even if my parents don't support me.!?
    • James Cook
      2/21/2014 3:58 PM
      Hi Karen! First of all, thank you for considering joining the Army. You're lucky because you're only 16 and still have plenty of time to consider this career. If you really feel the calling to join, you should! The tricky part is your parents. And the truth is, if your parents aren't abusive and crazy, they probably know what's best for you. From the way you write, it sounds like you're a very mature young woman and that your parents have done a great job of raising you. That being said, even though you may not want to listen to them now, it may be the best choice — and I'll tell you why: If you're girly and not athletic, you can still join the Army. There were plenty of girly girls who were not athletic at my Basic Training and they learned to push themselves to the limit. And they all graduated! The problem is, you're young and your parents don't support your decision. And when I was 16, my parents would have told me to shut up if I even mentioned joining the Army. You should go to school, first, and attain a Bachelor's degree (4 years of college ... don't worry, it's a lot of fun), and then you should see where your life is and if you want to join the military. The reason I suggest this is because by then, you'll be able to enter the Army at a higher rank (E-4 Specialist) and make more money. Plus, there are more opportunities when you're smarter and educated. It's more difficult when you're only 17 or 18. Also, byy the time you're in your early 20s, it's easier to get support from parents on these kinds of decisions. I joined when I was 25 years old and my parents loved the decision. I really hope you take this advice and consider college FIRST, then join the Army. We need college graduates! Best of luck to you in the future. Hooah! - Jim
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  • Kacy
    7/15/2014 12:15 AM
    SPC Cook, your story parallels mine in a lot of ways and as a result I really relate to your story. I first thought about the Army when I was 19 and didn't end up joining until I was 28. But everything you said about not wanting that regret of not doing it rang true for me too. I've been in for a little over two years now and don't regret that life changing decision for one minute.
  • Alex Swartz
    12/8/2014 5:41 PM
    Hey im currently 24 and i was really looking into the army when i was younger and did the same thing as you and chickened out. now that im older i want to join not the same carrer as you though but more or less going into infantry then after working for a PMC which is private military corporation but the question i have to you is it to late for me to join? I turn 25 in february
    • James Cook
      12/9/2014 2:26 AM
      Hi Alex,

      First off, thank you for considering a career in the United States Army. You won't be disappointed. I assume what you're talking about is you're looking into becoming an "11B" which is the main MOS for Infantry. All training is done in Fort Benning, Georgia. There are a lot of things you'll need to consider before joining — and you'll need to take your ASVAB test and medically qualify through MEPs (which your recruiter will guide you to). The Army is currently downsizing which is why it is more difficult nowadays to qualify medically, but we're alway looking to expand the Infantry — which really is the foundation of our Army, yesterday and today. That being said, you're actually the perfect age for military service. Personally, I think the 17-21 age bracket is a little too young (in my opinion). We find there is a certain level of maturity and leadership that soldiers in the early to late 20s can bring to the service. I enlisted when I was 25. I'm 27 now. Best job I ever had. Go for it, go for it, go for it. I may be heading to Georgia in the next year for some training, so, if we run into each other, I'll say hi. Hope this helps! -- Spc. Cook.

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