When Mike Potter walked through Montana Coffee Traders in downtown Whitefish on June 19, he was stopped five times by people telling him to be safe, or offering advice, and asking why he decided to join the Army in the first place.
It’s a good question.
Less than a year ago, Potter could be seen working here on his newspaper, The Whitefish Free Press, which he owned and edited, took photos and wrote stories for, and sometimes distributed. He was ubiquitous in the small town, a stocky, smiling guy nearly running down the sidewalk with a camera in one hand and a large espresso drink in the other, talking excitedly with anyone he bumped into.
Potter sold the Free Press in August 2006, and originally planned to start a new publication in Boulder, Colo. But on Dec. 21, 2006, six months shy of his 37th birthday, Potter read a story in USA Today about the Army offering two-year enlistments, down from the normal three to four year initial commitment.
The next day he visited a recruiter and enlisted as an infantryman.
“I went to the one field, the one position that would guarantee action on the front line,” he says.
Today, when the Army is lowering recruitment standards, welcoming more people with criminal records, low aptitude-test scores and no high school diplomas just to keep the ranks filled, Potter is an anomaly.
He says his basic infantry training, which he completed in Fort Benning, Ga., at the end of May before returning to Whitefish on leave, was populated primarily by 17- to 23-year-olds.
“They don’t even know,” he says of his fellow trainees. “They have no political background, they have no views…I think they’re lured in by the fact that they can shoot weapons, because they were flippin’ hamburgers or serving pizzas before. I really don’t think they realized what they signed up for.”
Potter readily admits he may not yet realize what he signed up for, either, but he comes to the Army with political views more sophisticated than those of his fellow recruits. He says he doesn’t agree with the Bush administration on much of anything, including its reasons for going to war with Iraq, and he believes there’s a good chance the wars there and in Afghanistan can’t be won.
Still, he says, he wants to go in with an open mind, and allow for the possibility that some good may still be done in Afghanistan.
Potter’s leave ended June 22, when he shipped out for Camp Casey, South Korea. He expects to begin a 15-month tour of Afghanistan at the end of August.
When he arrives there, he says, he’ll likely be a “glorified police officer,” doing door-to-door searches and street patrols. He specializes in operating a “squad automatic weapon,” known to soldiers as the SAW, a 16-pound automatic rifle that fires 750 rounds per minute.
Given the type of work he’ll be doing, and the weapon he’ll be carrying, it seems likely that in increasingly violent Afghanistan, Potter will have to kill people.
But despite having been born and raised in Whitefish, Potter says, before basic training he’d never even fired a weapon, and has never killed so much as a deer.
“I can’t imagine looking through the iron sights, pulling the trigger and actually watching somebody fall,” he says. “That to me is inconceivable.”
Which makes it almost inconceivable that Potter volunteered to go in the first place.
He gives several reasons for his decision.
“I just got sick of reading about the war the last five years, and all the inconsistencies with the media,” he says. “I thought, ‘What better way to see it than with my own eyes.’
“I’m single, it’s only a two-year commitment, and I’m a journalist at heart, so for me to have that tendency and that ambition is natural.”
He also says, “It’s Bush’s war and I’m against it all the way, but the thing is, there needs to be more of us, there needs to be more people that have my view, that actually put themselves in it to then make the decisions.”
And he admits part of the draw is simple desire for adventure.
Whitefish city judge Brad Johnson is one of the people who spoke with Potter on his way through Coffee Traders on June 19, and someone with whom Potter has conferred on his decision.
“I hope that early on the Army realizes that he is unique, different, atypical from the average soldier that’s going to hit the ground as a trained rifleman,” Johnson says. “For one thing, he’s almost twice the age of most of the people. He has a better function, from my perspective, than just being the basic rifleman.”
Johnson compares Potter to Private Joker, from the film Full Metal Jacket.
Private Joker, for anyone who hasn’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam film, was the soldier who becomes an Army journalist after basic training, and who wears a helmet emblazoned with the words “Born to Kill” and a silver peace sign.
“Private Joker kind of typifies, in my mind, who Mike is: a hyperactive, perceptive guy, who gets into the Vietnam war and right away realizes that he’s not just the average grunt, that he has something else to offer,” Johnson says.
But unlike Private Joker, Potter volunteered.
His brother, Howard Potter, questions the decision.
“I’m not too happy about it,” Howard says. “He knows that, and I’ll be worried about him continuously.”
Potter says that, for most of the people he knows in Whitefish, he’s the first person they’ll know actually fighting in the Middle East.
That’s true for Velvet Phillips-Sullivan, a Whitefish city council member who grew up with Potter.
“I worry about his safety,” she says. “He may not come back.”
She also worries that even if he does come back, he may not be the same gregarious, happy-go-lucky person who left. But at the same time, she suspects those personality traits might help keep him safe.
“He’ll know half of Afghanistan by the time he’s done,” she says.
Potter, too, wonders what kind of person he’ll be after his tour is over.
“I think I…I think I can handle almost any challenge that comes my way,” he says. “But you can never ever try to predict the reaction you’ll have to something unless you’ve gone through it.”