This installment of 11 QUESTIONS features First Sergeant Leslie Saroka. Leslie grew up in Dryden, New York, a small upstate town near Ithaca. He joined the United States Army in 1990, and is still active in the New York Army National Guard. He also works in his family business, and is a friend (and Army bandmate) of previous 11 Questions participant John Wilson!
* * * *
- WHY DID YOU JOIN THE MILITARY?
I joined the Army after college during the ramp up to the first Gulf War because at the time the nation was in a recession, and I was contemplating becoming an active duty Helicopter Pilot. I elected to enlist as a Ranger initially, and then intended to pursue flight school.
- DO YOU HAVE VETERANS IN YOUR FAMILY?
My grandfather was a career soldier from the 1920s until he retired after World War II. My father in law served in the Navy Reserve. Now, my daughter is currently a Midshipman at the United States Naval Academy.
- WHERE DID YOU ENLIST?
I enlisted at the MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) in Syracuse, NY.
- WHAT WAS YOUR PRIMARY MOS/JOB?
I enlisted as a 11B with a ‘Ranger’ option, which meant I was sent to Fort Benning for Basic and AIT (advanced infantry training). After that, I stayed for Airborne School and RIP (Ranger Indoctrination Program), which ultimately lead me to be assigned to the 1st Ranger Battalion located in Savannah, Georgia. There, I held every position from Rifleman up to a Heavy Weapons (antitank) Section Leader. I am now in the National Guard Band where I serve as the First Sergeant, but also play the clarinet and saxophone as a 42R.
- DO YOU REMEMBER THE NAME OF YOUR FIRST DRILL INSTRUCTOR?
I do not remember the name of my Drill Instructor, but do remember how he always talked about his triceps (yes, triceps, not biceps!) and that he wore a 7th ID (‘hourglass’) combat patch.
- WHAT WAS THE WORST THING YOU ATE IN THE MILITARY?
I always liked food, and don’t really remember eating too many bad things in the Army. I did think it was going to be horrible when I was at the Belgian Commando School and we were sent to lunch on the first day and all that was there was a roll, a stick of butter, and an onion. We ate the onions like an apple, and then took a bite of butter and a piece of bread to ‘wash’ it down. It was great, and ever since, loved the taste of raw onions!
- WHAT WAS THE MOST MEMORABLE DAY IN THE MILITARY?
There are so many memorable days in the military – those who serve know this. I guess if I had to pick one, it would be the day I exited the aircraft over Ali Al Salam Airfield when jumping into Kuwait after the Gulf War ended and we were deployed as a show of force to counteract belligerencies of Saddam Hussein. The winds were ferocious, and the sky was painted an eerie green and black as a result of all the Kuwaiti oil wells that were on fire. I was young and it was exhilarating.
- IF YOU COULD GO BACK TO THE DAY YOU GOT OUT OF THE MILITARY, WHAT WOULD YOU TELL YOUR YOUNGER SELF?
I really never got out of the military. I ETS’d (Expiration – Term of Service) from active duty in 1996, but soon thereafter joined the NY Army National Guard.
- DID YOU HAVE ANY VETERAN MENTORS?
I had two extremely influential mentors. The first was (at the time) SFC Matthew Berenna. He was my platoon sergeant when I first entered the Ranger Battalion. He was hard as nails and really taught me to lead from the front by being tactically and technically proficient. The second was (also, at the time) SFC Joshua Mitchell. He was my platoon sergeant when I was a young team leader and later as a Ranger squad leader. He taught me the value of being responsible for everything for the men under your charge, and how to bring the weaker ones up to speed so they could complement the stronger ones. That made for a very capable fighting force.
- WHAT WAS YOUR PROUDEST MOMENT AS A VETERAN?
My proudest moment as a Veteran thus far just happened the other day. I was in a deli ordering a sandhich, and another customer must have seen my National Guard wallet that I carry. He asked, ‘Excuse me sir, are you a veteran?’ I replied ‘Yes.’ He became visibly excited and exclaimed, ‘I knew it! Thank you for your service!’ I thanked him and told him I’m still active, which he replied to ‘Wow, keep making us feel safe!’ He went on to say how he is thinking of joining himself. Any way, he was about 20, and really made me feel good –not for myself, but that there really are a lot of proud patriots out there who are young!
- WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE/LEAST FAVORITE MILITARY-THEMED MOVIES?
The Patriot, Uncommon Valor, and Blackhawk Down (featuring several soldiers I knew personally) are some of my favorite military movies. The Rambo series are among my least favorite themed ones.