From rocker to soldier
AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Michael Calhoun plays guitar for friend, Matt Ross. Calhoun joined the Army through the Split Option Program and will ship out in November. "I absolutely loved Basic Combat Training," Michael said. "It was the best thing that happened to me in my young life."
Michael Calhoun is readying to ship out to begin a career in the United States Army and plans to ask to go overseas to Iraq or Afghanistan. Ironically, it all started because he wanted to be more than just a high school rock guitarist.
Michael learned to play guitar and bass guitar mostly on his own over the last several years. He had hoped that Jim Thorpe High School would have offered lessons but said that he was told that wasn't going to happen in these times of tight budgets.
He was good enough to get into two school bands. "At Jim Thorpe High School, I played in the Jazz Band and the Concert Band," Michael said. "For the Jazz Band, I played guitar and for the Concert Band, I played bass guitar."
"That's the original reason I was interested the Army," he continued. "I wanted to play jazz guitar in the Army band."
Looking back, Michael describes himself as a rocker. "I was in my junior year. I had hair down to my shoulders, and wore a full beard," he said. "I wasn't doing well in school."
His band director, Eric Flowers, who was also a Staff Sergeant in the Army Reserve told him about the Split Option Program, and said that he could arrange an audition with the Army Band. "It sounded like a way to start a career without going the civilian way of filling out countless applications."
Split Option is a program offered by the Army Reserve and the National Guard to high school students under the age of 18 years old. Under the Split Option Program, students after completing their junior year, join the service and spend their summer at a nine-week Basic Combat Training-Boot Camp.
"I failed my audition miserably," Michael said. "I did well on my scales and I had a great prepared piece, Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Child. But when it came time to play the piece that he gave me-I had to sight read a piece from Beethoven-I had no idea of how to play it because I am not fluent in reading music."
At the audition, he was told the details of the Split Option Program and it was suggested that if he joined the program, he return to high school for his senior year, improve his skills, and audition a second time toward the end of his senior year.
In June 2008, Michael began Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. "I absolutely loved Basic Combat Training," Michael said. "It was the best thing that happened to me in my young life."
"As a 17-year-old kid, I carried am M-16 rifle everywhere I went," he explained. "I qualified on the range for it. I was able to shoot targets over 300-yards away with it. I threw hand grenades, shot machine guns, learned how to enter buildings and safely clear them." Some of these skills were familiar to Michael at his job at Skirmish USA, a paintball venue in Penn Forest Township.
"I learned a lot about Arab culture," he noted. "Because of the war in Iraq, soldiers need to know the culture going in."
At Basic Combat Training, Michael completely forgot that the reason he joined the Program was as an opportunity to further his music. "I loved everything I did at BCT. All the things I accomplished there: from rifle qualifications, to getting physically fit, to marching in formation, to addressing everyone with the respect."
Michael loved his experience in Boot Camp so much, that he asked for a transfer from the Reserves to the Active Component of the U.S. Army. He made the transfer and has already moved up two pay grades-from Private Third Class to Private First Class. He signed up for a four-year contract and expects to reenlist after three years so that he can qualify for a reenlistment bonus and a choice of job assignments.
"When he first told me, I thought that he'd come back and be the same old Mike," said friend, Matt Ross. "He came back a completely different person-still a nice personality, but completely different. He has his life planned and on track. He knew what he wanted to do from the moment he came back."
"He influenced me to focus on my goals," Matt said. "If he could, why can't I. He rubs off on everyone. He inspires everyone he meets."
"The military changed him," noted his sister, Rebecca Calhoun. "He's not as big a slob as he used to be. From the looks of his room, it's a lot better. It was very bad. Now he actually tries to clean it up. It is ten times better than it was."