WHEN HE SAT DOWN AT HIS computer last August, Whitey Herzog picked aviation instead of infantry. He knew what he was doing — deciding against the military for a career. “I was like, ‘This is the rest of my life,’ ” Whitey remembers. There were ten minutes left. “And I just couldn’t press infantry. The answer was always there, it was just a matter of facing it.” He laughs. “When it’s ten minutes before the deadline, you face it.” Whitey will spend the next six years as a helicopter pilot; he’ll train with Brian Supko at Fort Rutger, Alabama. When those years are up, the plan is goodbye to the Army.
When he speaks about his decision, Whitey sometimes dips into the unease he must have felt in August, when he prayed for God to give him some signal in the porta-potty. “You know,” he says, “there’s only a few things that are important to me in life, and one of them’s service to the military. I’m dead serious about that 100 percent of the time.” Whitey had been so sure about infantry, he’d been measured for the uniform. “I was going to go infantry and go with the rangers. Always wanted to do that, had my heart set on it. I never failed any major goal in my life. And I had to accept that: Can I go with aviation and still serve as much as I want to?”
A few days before post selection, the infantry uniform arrived anyway. Whitey opened the box, looked at the gear for a long time. Blue is the infantry color – blue-striped cap, blue suspenders. After a week, it began to seem like unclaimed luggage at the airport, a suit made for somebody who was never showing up. He sent the uniform back. “I’m never going to know if I made the right decision,” he says. “Yeah, the contract says, ‘Hey, I’m good to go,’ but that’s no way to live life. You know – selfless service. That’s why I hurt.” He smiles. “No regrets.”
Whitey grew up hoping to be an officer; he wanted to do something for the country. “Nowadays most people don’t think of the military for that,” he says. “But that’s what I thought I’d be good at. I love the freedoms of our country. I love the fact that my friends can go do whatever they want, even little shit – I wanted to preserve that.” Whitey has always loved music (at West Point, first thing he’ll do back from class is turn on the CD, raise his hands and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, James Marshall Hendrix”). He even chooses women on a musical scale – “The Dead’s too far one way, Tupac’s too far the other; the kind of girl you’d find at an Allman Brothers concert, with a nice pair of jeans on.” His high school friends – beer drinkers, Deadheads – are mostly kids who didn’t even go to college. One works in a restaurant, another’s a bike messenger. Whitey was afraid he’d lose them over West Point. “That was my big worry – you know, the Army isn’t for them.” After Beast training, families are allowed a weekend visit; Whitey walked out of barracks hungry for a friendly face. Two of his buddies stepped from behind a tree – long hair, beards, tie-dye. The other families were craning necks, people with cameras and kids. What were guys like this doing at West Point? “But I didn’t give a crap about that,” Whitey says. “They supported me, they were proud of me. They thought it was cool.”
A cadet uniform is like an old-fashioned steamer trunk: Look at the stamps, they tell you where it’s been. Over his left pocket, Whitey wears the wreath that means he’s kept a 3.0 academically, physically and militarily. (This puts Whitey in the top fifteen percent of his class.) He wears Airborne wings, the National Defense Service ribbon, a military-skills badge and the Army Achievement Medal, for special-operations training missions with the Third Ranger Battalion. Cow summer, West Point sent Whitey to Mexico with five other cadets for some cultural ambassadorship; they toured Mexican army units, colonels got them drunk, generals fed them on yachts. “When we visited their military academy, the entire corps put on a show for us. And I ain’t shit, man – I’m some kid from Buffalo who loved to have his beers every day after high school with his buddies. And here we were, their whole school did a parade for us. The cadet that escorted me had tears in his eyes. He’s like, ‘This is my honor.’ I said, ‘I admire the discipline, it’s my honor, too.’ He’s like, ‘No, it’s my honor,’ and he took off his academy symbol and his airborne wings, gave ’em to me. I gave him mine.” Whitey knows everything about the Army – units, divisions, weapons – the way some kids know sports teams. Mention a battle, he knows how it was won; mention a movie, he’ll tell you how the Army makes sure Hollywood always gets one uniform detail wrong, so no foreign power with a costume designer can wreak havoc. He knows it because it’s what he’s always wanted.