Before participating in this video, what details did you know about the project?

It was presented somewhat as a game, but other than that, I really went into it sort of blind. I like to do things that way, to get the full experience of it. I just knew I was going to be talking to a stranger, and I didn’t know the questions were going to get so personal.

In your daily life, how often do you talk to civilians about life in the military? Are you honest with them about life in the military, and all of its ups and downs?

I have been an Army recruiter for 11 years, so I talk to civilians daily about military life. Now, when it comes to talking to random civilians that I’m not trying to recruit in the Army – not very often. I really do not talk about my military life [with strangers], unless someone asks me.

When I do, I definitely talk about the ups and downs that I’ve had in the Army. I have served 20 years as of June 2023 and will be retiring July 1, 2024. So, I guess I’m blessed to have 20 years of experience to talk about. And when I talk to the recruits, I’m honest with them and I tell them the good and the bad.

What did you think of your conversation with Max-El?

It was surprising. I usually do not talk about my feelings with people. And I usually don’t talk about personal experiences unless I’m super, super close with somebody. It was refreshing actually. In my head, I was like, “I’ll probably never see this man again, so anything I tell him is okay.“ Sometimes people say I’m fairly young – I’m 38 years old – but a lot has happened to me in my lifetime, from childhood until now. I get so busy with the day-to-day of running the recruiting station that I just don’t even think about my past or how my life has been. And with so much that’s happened, even since I joined the Army, I don’t have time to think about it. So just sitting back and reflecting with Max-El was really good.

Was there a particular moment in the conversation that stood out to you?

I don’t think there was a moment in the conversation that really stood out, but honestly just all of it. I was surprised by how easily Max-El and I conversed. It felt very natural. We started out by asking questions on cards that were given to us, but at a certain point, the person behind the camera said we were answering questions on cards we hadn’t even seen yet, because it was just so natural how we were transitioning the conversation to the next topic by ourselves. Being able to just relax and actually talk about those things was really nice.

What was the strongest connection between you two?

We connected over how people seem to think that we are something that we’re not, just because of how we look. He said that people think that he’s very standoffish and not approachable just by the way he looks. And I have the opposite problem, where I smile all the time. I’m usually full of energy, but I honestly do not like talking to people I don’t know, but people think I’m very approachable. It was funny to me that by the way we look, our demeanors, and how we present ourselves, people make assumptions about us. I really wouldn’t talk to anybody if I didn’t have to.

What was the greatest difference between you two?

There wasn’t a lot, other than him telling me about his life as a civilian. That’s always interesting to me because I joined the Army right out of high school. So our lives were completely different. We connected regarding our moms, but had very different experiences. I never reconnected with my mother after joining the Army, but he was always very close to his mom, and he talked about when she passed. So, I think the biggest thing is he is able to carry that love and that connection that he had with his mom throughout his life.

What do you feel is the most important thing you gained from this experience?

Max-El probably knows more about me than most people do – and I’ve only met that man once. I don’t talk about my family life with my coworkers or anything like that really, just because I don’t like to get personal. But being able to talk honestly with Max-El just lets me know that I can do it. I just choose not to do it. Being able to see the good and the bad and honestly reflecting back on my life with Max-El and how I made the decisions I made lets me know and lets me see that it was all for a purpose. And while I’m still working on it, it’s turning out the way I wanted it to.

Did you feel comfortable speaking about your military career with Max-El?

It was really easy. Usually, when people ask about the military experience, the first question is either, “Have you deployed?” or, “Have you been to war?” They equate military life with war, and Max-El didn’t do that. I was appreciative that he didn’t go directly there and assume that the only reason people join the military is to go to war.

What’s one thing about being in the military that you wish civilians knew or understood?

The biggest thing is that we are not just going to war all the time. People think that’s our entire purpose in life … to go to war and come back, to go to war and come back. When civilians always ask if we’ve been to war, it makes us feel that they think that we go to basic training and then we get deployed, and then we’re just over there and we’re kicking down doors, shooting guns and that’s our whole career. The news and social media associate the military with trauma, PTSD and suicide rates. It’s not all roses over here, but what is highlighted about the military is definitely a misconception.

What’s the most challenging aspect of being a service member?

Not counting basic training and AIT (Advanced Individual Training) … I’ve moved five times. Some people enjoy moving around a lot. I personally do not. And once the kids get older, moving gets harder. When my children were young, moving didn’t really affect them much. Now at 15, 13 and 11 years old, they have their own connections with the communities that they belong to. Pulling away from all of that is difficult, and losing close connections is probably the hardest part.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of being a service member?

I think the most rewarding thing for me about being a service member is being able to provide my family with resources and opportunities that I would’ve never thought of when I was 17 years old. Knowing that an African American male who came from a single-parent household below the poverty line is able to make it is a Grand-Canyon-of-a-dream that I never thought that I would be able to cross. I always tell people - the Army doesn’t change anybody, and it doesn’t. The Army provides the opportunity for you to use everything you possibly can to actually better yourself or find what you’re trying to find.

At the USO, we often talk about the “military-civilian divide” – the social and cultural gulf between service members and civilians, in which there are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings. In your opinion, what are some of the barriers that prevent service members from connecting with civilians?

I think it’s just not having exposure, honestly. When I was in Fayetteville, North Carolina, as a recruiter, I was right by a military base. All of my friends were soldiers. Not that I didn’t have access to civilians and talk to civilians, but I was just comfortable with soldiers. When I was assigned to Charlotte, North Carolina, and I didn’t have as much opportunity to be around soldiers, I made civilian friends. But we’re not exposed to civilians that much while we’re in the Army because we’re at a base and everybody that lives around the base, nine times out of 10, is a soldier. And my friend’s kids and their kids are usually somehow attached to the service. But when you come to a place like Atlanta or when you come to Charlotte, most people have no ties to the military.

The other big thing is that as soon as we let somebody know that we are in the Army or the service, the very first question is, “Have you deployed?” And from my experience, most service members do not like talking about their deployment experiences unless it’s with another service member. Somebody that can relate, they know they’ve been through it. It can discourage service members from even initiating a conversation knowing that there’s a good chance that deployment will come up. Or you don’t know how those people feel about soldiers … such as disagreeing about going into other countries … and maybe there’s a stigma that a soldier has PTSD, or anxiety. Talking with people inside the military community is just easier.

If you were to propose a solution to bridging the military-civilian divide, what would you suggest people do to meet each other halfway across that bridge? Do you think organizations like the USO can help with that? How?

I think education at an early age – in elementary schools, at middle schools and high schools, so people can even think of joining the military as an opportunity. I think that’s where you would make the most impact on changing misconceptions. And I think just getting new information out there to the people who will listen. A lot of people get their information from people who served in Vietnam or the Gulf War. It was a different Army then. Now, the military is all volunteer service, where the leaders grew up knowing that this is where they wanted to be and want to improve the organization.

Do you see any benefits to bridging the divide?

I thank the Army for everything that I have been able to accomplish in my life. And I look back and I am not naive to the fact that if I didn’t have the Army, I probably would not be able to accomplish everything that I have accomplished. There are people out there who could benefit from the Army in many different ways. Not just monetarily and not just money for college, but self-esteem and finding a place of belonging. Knowing that you’re going to get paid for the next two to three years to find your path … there are so many opportunities and so many ways to learn.

Do you think organizations like the USO can help to bridge that military-civilian divide?

I definitely think organizations like the USO can help bridge the divide in the aspect of getting awareness out there. And it’s hard; it takes a lot of money for nonprofits to get the awareness out there. Because with anything else, if we’re going to affect change, any kind of change in the mindset of the population as a whole, it’s hard. And that’s with anything that means accepting people for who they are. Organizations like the USO that focus on service member empowerment and service member recognition could definitely help.

Have you stayed in touch with Max-El since filming the project?

I haven’t. One the benefits that I had in my mind was that I’m probably never going to see this man again, so I can just open up to him. He was a cool guy, down to earth and if he was my next-door neighbor, I could definitely see being friends with him, but I wouldn’t have opened up like that.